If you’ve ever taken an acting class, you might’ve heard of the old tip, “Acting is reacting.” What makes a performance believable and engaging isn’t how an actor emotes or delivers their lines. It’s how actors react to each other. If one actor yells, another might react by appearing anxious. If one actor smiles, the other might react by smiling back.
This back and forth makes plays and movies appear genuine because it proves that there’s a connection between the performers — they’re really listening.
It’s this exact quality that makes listening such a crucial skill in sales interactions. Now, “listening” might be the most rudimentary sales concept. It’s part of every sales newbie’s training. But listening in a sales context doesn’t mean understanding someone’s words well enough to transcribe them. What’s more important is how you react to those words.
That’s where the concept of “active listening” comes in. This concept was first introduced to us in 1957 by the psychologists Richard Farson and Carl Rogers. At the time, it was designed as a technique to improve the quality of psychotherapy sessions. Here’s how they defined active listening 70 years ago:
“Basically, it requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us. More than that, we must convey to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view.”
By understanding active listening, you can better understand your prospects, get more people to trust you, and ultimately make more sales. Here’s how you can apply these techniques to insurance sales.
1) Focus On Total Understanding
Take a moment to appreciate all the wonderful technology that’s now integrated into our lives. We humans have managed to mold nature into tools that make us hundreds of times more productive. But computers and smartphones weren’t created through sheer force of will. Before anyone could even build a computer chip, engineers had to first realize that silicon was the perfect semiconductor material. And before they could do that, scientist had to first understand everything they could about silicon.
Really, that’s the story of all great technological breakthroughs. First, scientists thoroughly study nature. Then engineers take that knowledge to create amazing things.
This process works equally well on people. If you want to make a sale, you first have to play the role of scientist, understanding where they’re coming from. You have to have empathy, even if you don’t agree with them — or if they believe something that might make a sale harder.
Say, for example, you’re talking to a prospect who simply hates Obamacare outright. Dismissing their concerns isn’t going to win you any points. Instead, you should understand their frustrations, concerns, and level of insurance understanding. That’s really the only hope you’ll have of making a productive connection with your leads.
This step is especially crucial when you go through the process of educating the client. Going in cold, you never quite understand how well the lead understands your products — which makes education tricky.
If you underestimate how knowledgeable they are, you’ll come off as patronizing and simply repeat facts that they already know. If you overestimate how knowledgeable they are, you’ll go over their head and confuse them. And they’ll probably be too proud to admit that they have no idea what you’re talking about.
A brief conversation can help you pick up clues regarding their level of expertise.
2) Feed It Back To The Prospect
The goal with active listening isn’t merely to understand your prospect. It’s also to make them understand that you understand. They want some kind of proof that they aren’t just talking to a void.
The easiest way to do that is to take what they said and repeat it back to them in their own words. So if someone says, “I’m looking for a policy that covers my wife and son, and allows me to see my family physician,” then you shouldn’t simply respond, “I can help you do that.” Instead, you should say something like, “So you want to cover your entire family and keep your current doctor. Is that right? I can show you the plans that work best for you.”
It’s a simple way to prove that you understand them. As a bonus, they’ll just plain like you more. As a bonus, they’ll just plain like you more. They’ll feel like their needs matter to you — and that can help you close the sale.
3) Acknowledge The Emotional Subtext
No one, as far I know, uses talking to an insurance agent as a substitute for therapy. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t hoping someone will acknowledge what’s going on inside their head while they’re exploring insurance options.
Insurance has a reputation for being a dry and boring industry. But all of the paperwork, actuarial tables, and bureaucracy cover up the soft, emotional core of the service that insurance provides. It protects what’s most important to people: savings accounts, health, valuable possessions, and loss of income. What could be more emotional than that?
Of course, all of that bureaucracy and paperwork itself can be the source of many emotions. People can be frustrated by the process, confused by the deluge of information, or angered by the politics.
For example, if someone says, “I’ve been researching insurance plans for my family for two weeks,” they aren’t just telling you a dry fact. They are also probably frustrated that the decision isn’t simpler.
You can acknowledge the emotional subtext with something as simple as, “I bet it will be a big relief when you finally get your policy. Let’s see what I can do for you.” It will show that you’re on the same level they’re on.
4) Ask A Question That Builds On What They Said
One of the defining characteristics of a scientist is curiosity. They aren’t satisfied with how much they know — they always want to keep digging and questioning in order to understand even more.
When you’ve achieved a level of understanding and trust, you don’t have to stop there. You can ask a simple follow-up question that proves you want to know more. Ideally, this shouldn’t be a simple yes/no question or something that is an obvious push to a sale. Instead, you should ask an open-ended question that encourages the prospect to share more about their challenges and goals.
If you’ve proven yourself an active listener, they should be willing to share more info with you.
5) Connect Their Problem With Their Solution
Now that you’ve played the role of the scientist, it’s time to switch to the engineer role. An engineer is somebody who uses their raw knowledge about science to solve real problems that people face.
Once you have your raw knowledge of where they’re coming from, then you can actually do the work of closing. The more effectively you can draw a straight, short line from the problems they’ve experienced to the insurance products you offer, the more receptive they will be — and the easier it will be to hang up the phone with one more sale on the books.
Active listening is such an effective sales weapon because it builds on two cornerstones of an effective sale: trust and likability. People who actively listen are more trustworthy because they make an extra effort to understand. They’re also more likable, since people simply like others who show an interest in them.
Mastering this skill won’t just give you another sales technique to use — it will upgrade every sales conversation.